Herodotus and The Invention of History

By Raymond Kierstead | September 1, 2011

“Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements
may not be forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds—some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians—may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two peoples fought with each other.

To the historian, these opening lines of Herodotus’ Histories represent something akin to a sacred text, the beginning, it is sometimes argued, of the practice of history, or at least of history as a critical mode of inquiry into the past. Like many claims of origins and intellectual paternity, the venerable cliché that Herodotus was the “father of history” may be a bit suspect. Perhaps he had Greek predecessors who deserve the name historian, such as Hecataeus of Miletus. Perhaps there are other traditions of historical writing that ought to take precedence when we consider the formation of the historical imagination over time; the Biblical history of the Jews comes immediately to mind in this case. Yet there is an argument to be made that Herodotus, in weaving together the stories of his and other cultures, in taking the conventions of Greek religion and Greek epic and making those conventions meaningful to contemporary or near-contemporary events, in constructing a dense narrative of those events, and, finally, in his prodigious questioning of his world about its memories of the past, “invented” history. And this is the case I’ll try to make today.

Herodotus’ history of the war between Greeks and Persians dates from roughly the mid-fifth century. By this point, we are in a period when Greek culture had been quite thoroughly penetrated by critical modes of thinking, first in the realm of philosophy as part of the intellectual legacy of the Ionian Greeks. In the case of Herodotus, who, to some degree at least, shared in the so-called Ionian enlightenment, critical intelligence was directed to human affairs in time. With Herodotus we encounter the beginning of the historian’s attempt to wrestle with the concept of time: to give shape to time and to memory and to impose a certain order upon the seeming chaos of human actions over time. In his opening lines, Herodotus not only evokes the idea of war narrative in an epic mode, not only an interest in the totality of human experience, but perhaps above all he evokes the idea of explanation, “why the two peoples fought one another.” In so doing he established history at its very “birth” as an explanatory enterprise, an interpretive discipline. However good the stories that are the heart and soul of his work and however compelling his narrative, Herodotus was no mere storyteller. His “invention” was designed not only to entertain, but also to compare, to explain, and to interpret.

This “invention” has not always been admired. Near-contemporaries such as Thucydides and later classical historians such as Plutarch were contemptuous of Herodotus’ work. Even in later antiquity we uncover the great insult to Herodotus’ work: “The Father of History; The Father of Lies.”  Stories of naked queens and children served up as pies were thought by later practitioners of the historical art to demean history as a serious intellectual enterprise. This mélange of conventional stories and conventional wisdom, improbable events and equally improbable conversations, gossip and hearsay, condemned Histories as hopelessly unreliable and unscholarly. However, and fortunately for us, we stand at the far side of that 2,000-year divide and are part of a historical culture within which Herodotus’ reputation is secure. Indeed, strange to say, we inhabit an intellectual and cultural world where Herodotus may be considered something of a hot subject: an important figure in debates over diversity and Eurocentrism, and even a bit player in the Academy Award–winning film The English Patient. I am afraid that my subject is somewhat less trendy. I want to try to measure Herodotus’ achievement from the perspective of a modern historian and to search out certain affinities between his strangeness and our strangeness.

We can begin to measure Herodotus’ achievement by brief consideration of the intellectual traditions that he inherited. He was located in a culture that was shaped by myth and epic, and there are some good reasons, as we shall see later, to regard Herodotus as standing squarely in that dual tradition. Thus Werner Jaeger in his classic, Paideia, wrote: “His work was the resurrection of the epic tradition . . . or rather it was new growth from the epic root.” But the very word “invention” that I have chosen to use in analyzing Herodotus’ achievement argues for innovation more than resurrection. For the idea that human societies require history, that it is an inevitable part of cultural baggage, is anthropologically false. Although one may argue plausibly that all societies depend to one degree or another on tradition—i.e., the need to relate past and present—myth and poetry may serve this purpose well enough. Historical inquiry ought not to be understood as simply the inevitable evolutionary outgrowth of other modes of thought, let alone as part of a broader evolution from primitive to more advanced culture.

There were possible influences on Herodotus, influences conventionally attributed to his Ionian background. Thus Charles Fornara takes us a step beyond Jaeger when he writes that, “Herodotus perhaps united epic theme with Ionian method.” Historiographer Herbert Butterfield argued that the very geographic situation of the Ionians between cultural worlds, at a crossroads of trade, on the fringe of a great empire—“the meeting place of Mediterranean civilizations”—impelled an interest in other peoples and thus the origins of a kind of historical inquiry. It is in this ethnographic context of an attempt to understand neighboring peoples that one best observes Herodotus’ remarkable capacity to describe other cultures and their differences (they pee that way; we pee this way). Herodotus, with his keen observation of cultural detail, was a master at drawing cultural boundaries between Greek and barbarian, democracy and despotism, West and East, Persian and Scythian. But, in assessing his ethnographic method, it is equally important to note that Herodotus understood that those boundaries were permeable. Egyptian civilization could, for example, be a source of Greek civilization. At a more general level, Herodotus had the capaciousness of mind to transcend ethnography and recognize that there could be, at certain moments in time, similar elements of greatness and of baseness in very different civilizations. That meant that the known world could not simply be divided antithetically between Greek and barbarian. There was great value in, but, also limits to, the ethnographic analysis of difference that is so conspicuous a part of Herodotus’ achievement.

Herodotus also stood heir to the tradition of Ionian critical thinking or rational inquiry. He openly recognized the influence of the late sixth- and very early fifth-century “historian,” Hecataeus of Miletus. Hecataeus was a questioner of traditions who sought to purify and rationalize the legendary inheritance of the Greeks and to purge some of the miraculous from the received tradition. For example, a King Aegyptus was said by tradition to have had 50 sons and a certain Danaos 50 daughters. Hecataeus concluded that each had 20. His attempts to sort out legends and stories and to establish the most likely and most commonsensical solution clearly shaped Herodotus’ method of inquiry and generated a tradition of separating fact from fancy, what some would see as the very essence of historical practice. This is evident in Herodotus’ skeptical treatment of ancient stories about the origins of the wars between Greeks and barbarians. Herodotus’ keen analysis of the differences between Eastern despotism and Greek liberty may well have derived in some fashion from speculative tradition among Ionian thinkers on the responsibility of climate for the character of states. In short, we can place Herodotus in a broad intellectual setting, as long as we understand that none of the Ionian traditions comprised history as such. For better or worse, as is inevitably quoted in lectures such as this, “there was no Herodotus before Herodotus.”

Herodotus’ unique invention, history, may be understood in several ways. He told an epic story of war and great deeds that was at bottom a human story. In the tradition of Hecataeus, Herodotus sought to separate fact from myth, to query his sources, to get the story right. In so doing, Herodotus established what would be the fundamental framework and subject matter of this new form of inquiry. History would deal with near-contemporary and contemporary events. As in epic, war and the causes of war and the clashes of cultures at war would be the essential subject matter of history. It would examine political life. In a certain sense, history would be polis literature, that is, a serious reflection on political cultures from the perspective of Greek political experience in the fifth century. 

In the latter aspect as least, Herodotus reflected less his Ionian background, his generally cosmopolitan outlook, and his profound interest in cultures than his acquired Athenian allegiance. As the late Moses Finley wrote, “His political vision was Athenian and democratic, but it lacked any trace of chauvinism. He was committed, but not for one moment did that release him from the high obligation of understanding . . . Nothing could be more wrongheaded than the persistent and seemingly indestructible legend of Herodotus the charmingly naïve storyteller.” Though one must add here that his history, as a reading of book I suggests, stands somewhere at the boundaries between artful storytelling and explanation.   

In sum, Herodotus defined the boundaries of his invention, history, and tied that invention to the Greek, and particularly fifth-century Athenian, passion for the political life and for political understanding. No more than we can understand fifth-century tragedy outside the polis can we understand history in its earliest manifestation outside of polis political culture.   

In establishing a narrative of the Persian Wars, in separating many facts from myths, in devising enormously complex chronologies of events, Herodotus laid fair claim to his posthumous title, Father of History. On occasion, however, one encounters a fairly naïve interpretation of Herodotus that confuses the achievement of this eminent fifth-century Greek with certain modern ideas about the possibilities of scientific history, ideas that held that historical statements or generalizations derive from the true facts of history, patiently accumulated and clearly arranged. In this light, Herodotus’ prodigious attempts to sort out truth from fiction and to compare and criticize different accounts of the same event look indeed like the beginning of an evolution that, with some unfortunate detours, culminated in modern historical method. Now, only nonhistorians suffer the delusion that history is in any sense a science, a discipline in which one argues in a simple linear way from fact to generalization. The human mind—alas, even the historian’s mind—is more complicated and interesting than that. In fact, a careful reading of Herodotus suggests that he probably has far more in common with his friend Sophocles, the fifth-century writer of tragedy, than with any post-Renaissance or modern historian. Although this might appear to be a negative comparison and judgment, it is certainly not meant to be. The narrowest conceptions of history as an empirical discipline have long since been consigned to the trash bin reserved for intellectual silliness, and modern historians increasingly appreciate not Herodotus’ prodigious fact-grubbing, worthy as it may be of admiration, but rather his imaginative capacity to give shape to time—time being the historian’s medium and the shaping of time the historian’s principal task.

The great originality of Herodotus was most certainly not his empirical method, but rather, as I argued near the beginning, his attempt, once he got his selected facts in order, to interpret and explain the human past. The intellectual power of his opening sentence rests on his determination to find reasons for the great war, reasons that would explain the greatest of human events. The stories and facts that Herodotus patiently gleaned in his travels and oral interviews did not lead inexorably to his historical explanations or to his reasons. Rather, I would argue, his understanding of the deep patterns of divine action and of human history made sense of the facts and events he discovered, fit into a pattern, and then recounted. If Herodotus has a special affinity to modern historians, I would suggest that it rests on his discovery that facts, however fascinating, do not speak for themselves. Time and again, Herodotus tells us he has selected out what was worthy to be remembered. His principle of selection—selection being the key to historical architecture—depended very much on his sense of patterns in history, on his sense of the shape of time or those forces that order human events.

What do I mean by patterns? One such pattern Herodotean history shared with, if it did not borrow from, tragedy: the idea of the general instability of the human condition, of the reversals of fortune that were the human lot, and the associated political idea of the rise and fall of states. Another, related, pattern had to do with pride and fall and punishment. Time was the working out of such archetypical patterns. Historic time was, then, not unlike tragic time, a point made most obvious in the first book of Herodotus’ history, particularly in the story of Croesus. History, as the story and analysis of human things, could never penetrate and understand the divine and fated processes. History could, however, as an incomplete and partial science or field of knowledge, read some of the signs of those processes working in the world. Perhaps this is the thrust of Momigliano’s statement that, “even if we did not know that Sophocles was a friend of Herodotus’, we would perceive the latter’s connections with the former in moral, religious, and political feelings.” In sum, from Herodotus we begin to perceive that though the gleaning of facts may be the first crucial step in history, it is not history. History is accomplished only when time is given shape and when explanation and interpretation occur.

The idea of Herodotus as the progenitor of a certain empiricist idea of historical method continuously runs aground precisely on the question of the divine shaping of his history. A German classicist puts it provocatively and pithily: “Herodotus was the first and last representative (in the ancient world?) of theological historiography.” Fate and divine will were indeed historical forces for Herodotus, and human events were played out in a moral universe controlled by those supernatural forces. History, as the story of human things, inevitably reflected, however dimly, the divine plan. Yet to characterize Herodotus’ work as “theological historiography” goes too far. However intellectually unsatisfying to us moderns, Herodotus’ capacious sense of history encompassed both the divine plan, patterning, and human freedom and action (in this, not unlike both epic and tragedy). This marriage in Herodotus of a sense of overarching pattern and passionate interest in the human thing—in the earthly city—can be illustrated by the theme of the rise and fall of states.

Greek history in general, and that of Herodotus in particular, was founded on the idea of the general instability of all things. “The very notion of rise and fall,” Jacqueline de Romilly writes, “seems to be rooted in the inner sensibility of the Greeks. “ This insight was the source of what I find to be the Greeks’ most engaging and attractive intellectual characteristic, a grim and unrelenting realism about things, focused on such themes as pride and punishment, that united, as I have noted, tragedy and history around a common theme. In this, at least, Herodotus did not part from tradition. He tried, according to Fornara, “to show that, within the larger design woven by fate, good fortune was unstable and intrinsically corrupting, whether for individuals or for city states.” It was Herodotus’ discovery that the study of human things, of human events, illustrated great moral themes. And such themes were part of his explanatory framework. Before his disastrous expedition against the Greeks, for example, the emperor Xerxes was warned, “You know my Lord, that amongst living creatures it is the great ones that God smites with his thunder, out of envy of their pride. The little ones do not vex him. It is always the tall trees which are struck by lightning. It is God’s way to bring the lofty low” (book VII). Yet even this seminal moral principle did not exclude human responsibility or make less important human action. In the case of Xerxes, Romilly writes, “The pattern of rise and fall . . . had its warrant in God’s intervention, but the link is provided by the overconfidence and the imprudence of the King.” History’s domain was precisely that realm of linkage and the realm of contingency where human choices, mistakes, successes, and disasters served as signs and markers of metahistorical patterns and processes. (One might want to think through the great story of Croesus with this thought in mind.)

The same principle applied to states. The series of episodes, some legendary or even mythic in character, that progressively trace the nature of Eastern despotism and plot the rise and fall of the Persian Empire, suggests the deep patterning of the historical process along familiar lines of crime and retribution, rise and fall, hubris and nemesis. Even Athens, the ultimate victor and principal beneficiary of the Persian Wars, appears to have been an instrument of divine planning and an agent of divine will. In book VIII, for example, we are told of a storm in which the Persian fleet was battered and reduced in size, more equal to the Greek fleet. Herodotus writes, “All this was done by the god, that the Persian armament might be made equal with that of the Greeks . . .” In book VII Herodotus attributes the success of the Greeks in defeating the Persians to the Athenians and declares, “Greece was saved by the Athenians . . . It was the Athenians who—after the gods—drove back the Persian king.”

In my view, it is a misinterpretation of Herodotus and the unity of his histories to assume that in these passages he did not mean what he clearly stated: that Athens, in leading the defeat of the Persians, was doing the work of and enjoying the protection of the god(s). That this was not simply a manner of speaking or a conventional patriotic bromide is, I think, demonstrated by the total structure of the histories from beginning to end, a structure that time and again reveals Herodotus’ ability to link the metahistorical and the world of immediate human action.    

Neither individuals nor states are to be understood simply as robot-like instruments of the heavenly script or of the often obscure and rather ominous rules that governed time. If universal rules—rise and fall, crime and retribution, pride and punishment—applied to all and if no individual or state could forever escape destiny, nonetheless there were fully human ways to live and to act in time. “Know thyself,” Herodotus admonishes time and again. That is, know one’s place and that one is not a god, a theme of both epic and tragedy. Know that, whatever the gods may order, moderation, self-control, and self-restraint are the necessary qualities of the good life. The great political theme of fall and decline, had a necessary countertheme: the rise of states. And for Herodotus, the most conspicuous examples of risen states in his time were the two very different Greek cities, Athens and Sparta. Their greatness, displayed in the Persian wars of the early fifth century, raised questions about the divine plan and fate, but also questions at the human level about the conditions of Greek success generally and of Athenian success in particular and whether that success might be perpetuated over time. Herodotus advanced a bold hypothesis: political success was related to the character or culture of a society. The particular genius of the city-state was its adherence to self-imposed law, in other words a certain conception of liberty. It was not climate that explained the dynamic quality of the Greek states aligned against Persia, nor riches, but law that defined a political culture within which liberty, collective self-discipline, and civic heroism could all prosper. To a question about the Greeks posed by Xerxes, Demaratus responds, “ . . . poverty is Greece’s inheritance from of old, but valor she won for herself by wisdom and the strength of the law . . .” (book VII). Romilly writes of Herodotus’ explanation of Greek success: “Early practical experience was turned into a discovery.” Virtuous citizens, informed by law, brought about the greatness of states and, moreover, the promise of stability and the possibility of staving off the decay and inevitable fall that states shared with all organisms. For states, as for individuals, there was then a realm of freedom, a realm of contingency where good cultural traits and sound constitutions potentially made a difference, perhaps assured the rise of states and their longevity. Thus culture and constitutions, and the relations between them, became a major theme of Herodotus’ study.

It is fair criticism of Herodotus that he never fully integrated his levels of explanation, ranging from the metahistorical to the motivations and actions of states and individuals, into a satisfactory whole. This may inevitably be true of “theological history.” Especially if, as David Grene has argued, “there are two worlds of meaning that are constantly in Herodotus’ head. The one is that of human calculation, reason, cleverness, passion, happiness. There one knows what is happening and, more or less, who is the agent of cause. The other is the will of the Gods, or fate, or the intervention of daimons . . . And this power’s relation to man is bound up with a maddening relation between man’s reason and understanding and such ‘signs’ as the Divine has allowed us to have of its future or past intervention.”

With Grene’s analysis, we return to an earlier theme. It is among the historian’s tasks to attempt to read these signs and to relate them to change over time. Yet, and this is the principal point of the lecture, Herodotus’ discovery that the great moral and religious themes that suffused his thinking could be linked intellectually to the patterns of human affairs and actions—to the processes of history—had, perhaps ironically, the effect of advancing the idea that human things could be explained in human terms and that tentative, if not ultimate, explanations could be offered about the way the world works.

At this juncture, Herodotus connects remarkably to a modern historical sensibility. Modern historians generally do not fall into the vocabulary of pride and fall, divine retribution and such. Yet a few, some of the best among them, continue to contemplate the great issue of historical necessity and contingency. Contingency is the historian’s natural field of play, but the idea that forces beyond direct human control and immediate understanding constrain human freedom and agency also informs at least one corner of the modern historical imagination. In this, at least, the modern historian may be far more comfortable with Herodotus—even with his outlandish tales—than with those sober founders of the modern profession who established the “science” of history.

I would like to conclude this lecture on the “invention” of history with a few summary remarks on Herodotus’ historical method. We have seen that there are some snares packed into the notion of Herodotus, Father of History, and the association of his fathering with the emergence of critical rationalism in a modernizing mode. While there is some truth in these generalizations, we shall badly misread Herodotus if we expect to find in him a fact-driven historian who understood history as a sequence of events linked in some linear fashion by cause and effect. Herodotus understood one big thing (yes, historians can be hedgehogs): There were great permanencies that governed universal history, and those permanent things appeared in human history in different times, places, and settings. To his credit, Herodotus thought it important to record and to explain those appearances, and thus he opened the realm of contingency—of human actions—to methodical study and to interpretation.   

His selection of facts, then, was not an impartial exercise, a gathering of data in the manner of a modern social scientist. And, to be sure, Herodotus viewed the world and its history through the categories of a Greek mind. But Herodotus did not believe that  history was just one damn thing after another. His history was driven by a worldview and by his theories and his understanding of the permanent things at play in the universe. He selected episodes to relate and accepted events as true that conformed to his ideas of the patterning and processes of history, episodes and events that confirmed the boundaries of the world he knew, but also illustrated the transgressions of those boundaries.   

As we think about the problem of reading this ancient historian, let’s conclude with an episode from book VIII, an episode that takes place well after the great victories over the Persians, victories won by the Athenian admiral, Themistocles:


The Greeks, since they decided against pursuing the barbarians’ ships further . . . beleaguered Andros with the purpose of taking it. For the Andrians, the first of the islanders to be asked for money by Themistocles, had refused him. The-
mistocles put his proposition in these words: “We Athenians have come with two great gods to aid us, Persuasion and Necessity, and so you should render up your money to us.” But the Andrians answered this by saying, “. . . we have a most plentiful poverty of land and two useless gods, who never quit our island but love to dwell in it . . . Penury and Helplessness. These are the gods we Andrians possess, and so we will give no money.” Such was the answer of the Andrians, and they gave no money and were now besieged . . . Themistocles, whose greed for money was insatiable, kept sending threatening messages to other islands . . .

What are we to make of this? Through an earlier conversation at the Persian court, we have learned that the Greeks were a particularly formidable enemy because of their institutions and law-bound culture. We have also learned that from the beginning of their known history the Athenians have been prone to rashness, error, and mistakes. At the height of the Greek, and particularly Athenian, fortunes after the defeat of Persia, we now observe the corruption and the excesses of some of the victors who undertake a brutal little imperialist shakedown of the Andrians and other islanders. We consider the dictum that good fortune breeds pride, excess, and then downfall. Perhaps, as we observe the rapacious barbarity of some of the Athenians, we even question the distinction between democracy and despotism, civilization and barbarism, between us and the other. We wonder if the Athenian political culture, based on self-governance and self-discipline under law, will hold in the face of Athenian success. In thinking like this, we have entered the mental world of Herodotus, the Father of History.

Ray Kierstead, Richard F. Scholz Professor of History & Humanities, Emeritus, graduated from Bowdoin College and received his PhD in history from Northwestern University. In 1956, he received a Fulbright Fellowship to attend the University of Paris and there developed an interest in his principal scholarly field, early modern France. After some years of teaching at Yale University and the Catholic University of America, he joined the Reed faculty in 1978, retiring in 2000. During retirement he has continued to lecture in the humanities program.

These classic Hum lectures were selected by Peter Steinberger [political science 1977–]. 

Further Reading

Jacqueline De Romilly, The Rise and Fall of States According to Greek Authors (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991)

Charles W. Fornara, The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983)

Arnaldo Momigliano, The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990)

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